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Olympus comes clean after decades of hiding losses

A customer checks a camera of Japanese optical giant Olympus at a Tokyo camera shop on October 27, 2011.

Steve Chiotakis: Japanese camera maker Olympus now admits it covered up huge losses dating all the way back to the 1980s. Executives reportedly paid
inflated fees to advisers as part of the scheme -- a reverse from earlier denials the firm had done anything wrong. Olympus stock lost about a third of its value after the announcement.

The BBC's Roland Buerk is in Toyko, where the company is based. Hey Roland.

Roland Buerk: Hi.

Chiotakis: Tell us what happened at Olympus.

Buerk: Essentially what we're looking at here is possibly the largest corporate fraud -- or one of them -- in Japanese history. It all started back in mid-October, when the British president and chief executive, Michael Woodford -- who'd only been there six months -- raised questions about a number of transactions.

Olympus had paid $687 million in advisory fees to firms -- one in the United States, on in the Cayman Islands. They bought three Japanese companies -- small ones -- for $1 billion, nearly, and they've written down the value several years later.

For weeks now, Olympus has been saying nothing wrong, but now they've admitted that those payments are actually going to cover up huge losses they'd been making in share dealing dating back to the 1990s -- a massive incident of corporate misgovernance.

Chiotakis: And some of these deals date back many, many years, Roland. I mean, how could this have gone on for so long?

Buerk: I think that it raises in Japan of corporate governance -- of just how independent boards are; of just how willing people are who tend at the top of these companies, who work for one firm for life, to challenge other members of boards.

Certainly for Olympus, they're paying a very heavy price. Today, their shares were down by 29 percent -- the maximum allowed to fall in a single day. And since all this began in mid-October, the company's lost 70 percent of its value -- so its very survival is in doubt. And we are hearing reports in Tokyo that the FBI is investigating as well.

Chiotakis: The BBC's Roland Buerk in Tokyo. Roland, thank you.

Buerk: Thank you.

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